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Freedom and security: consequences of 9/11 worldwide

Esteban Beltrán
Director of Amnesty International Spain
Esteban Beltrán

Esteban Beltrán

Some people argue that the threat of terrorism is so serious that respect for human rights is an obstacle to security. This idea took shape after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York. Since then, with the help of other states, people have been arrested arbitrarily, held in secret, transferred to other countries with no legal guarantees, and subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial, torture and ill treatment.

Since then, fear has been an excuse for the repression of political opposition. In India, opponents have been held without charge for more than the two years stipulated by law in Jammu and Kashmir. In Turkey, 12-year old children have been arrested under the anti-terrorism law for their alleged involvement in demonstrations by the Kurdish community. In Pakistan, members of Hindu and Baloch nationalist groups have been persecuted and repressed. And since 2009, Saudi Arabia has detained thousands of people in complete secrecy, subjected them to summary trials or killed them in supposed "clashes with security forces". Last July, Amnesty International published a Saudi anti-terrorism bill that would allow peaceful protesters to be tried as terrorists. The authorities' response was to block access to our website.

For millions of people, the real sources of insecurity have been corrupt and incompetent police and justice systems, the brutal repression of political dissent, harsh discrimination and social inequalities. In Tunisia, after years of brutal repression of dissent, during which people were tortured in the name of the fight against terrorism, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against these repressive policies and the lack of economic opportunities. The jasmine revolution ended decades of Ben Ali's government, and spread to Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Egypt, where it also put an end to decades of abuse by the Mubarak government.

Forced disappearances have increased over the past decade. They were unusual before 9/11 in Pakistan and Yemen. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of people have been victims of arbitrary arrest and secret detention.

Torture has been legitimised by governments, including that of the United States. After taking office, President Barack Obama said he would not approve the use of torture and other types of ill-treatment. This measure was received very positively, but to date not a single step has been taken to investigate the use of torture, despite former President George W. Bush's acknowledgement that he specifically authorised it. Instead, it has been justified in Guantánamo as providing information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his assassination without a trial.

Countries including Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Sweden have also failed to investigate these abuses, even when transferring detainees to countries with a long tradition of abuse. They did so, clinging to diplomatic assurances based on a "promise not to do it again." And although countries like Spain, Lithuania, Macedonia and the United Kingdom have acknowledged that they have not thoroughly investigated their participation in the CIA's programmes of extraordinary rendition and secret detention, other countries like Romania continue to deny the evidence of their collaboration.

In 2005, the then United Nations Secretary General, said that "in our struggle against terrorism, we must never compromise human rights. When we do so, we facilitate achievement of one of the terrorist's objectives." In fact, terrorist attacks on civilians have continued to take place over the past decade in the United States, Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, Uganda, Egypt, and India, where last July, three blasts in Mumbai killed at least 18 people.

Despite Obama's announcement of Guantánamo's closure, 172 men are still in its cells two years later. Only one has been tried by a civilian court, and five by military commissions. The rest have yet to be tried. Even if it closes, hundreds of people are still detained without charge, trial or judicial review in the US airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan, alone. And in many countries around the world, freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of the fight against terror. We must not allow the victims of human rights abuses committed by states or armed groups to be forgotten.